Ukraine’s biggest achievement since independence in 1991 is to have confounded its critics, ill-wishers, and the Kremlin by surviving as a democratic state. Many expected Ukraine to be short-lived. And many others expected it to follow in the footsteps of its post-Soviet neighbors and abandon democracy. Instead, 25 years after independence, Ukraine survives as a democratic state, albeit an imperfect one.
Its survival and consolidation as a democracy can be largely attributed to the fact that, from 1991 to 2014, Ukraine had the good fortune to exist in relatively benign geopolitical circumstances. Russia, the only existential threat to Ukraine, was in disarray during the Boris Yeltsin era. And, until 2014, Putin’s Russia, while far from being a good neighbor, had resisted direct intervention. Europe in general and Eastern Europe in particular were stable and prosperous during this period: NATO enlarged and the EU did so in its wake. The United States remained committed to its leadership role in the region, and the West’s relations with Russia were mostly constructive. And, finally, Ukrainians—or, more precisely, Ukrainian civil society—consistently challenged government corruption and incompetence and promoted accountability, democracy, tolerance, and transparency.
Despite these years of relative stability, Ukraine’s elites failed to reconstruct the nation or set it on a path that would ensure the development of its enormous potential. Instead, their rule was defined by incompetence, corruption, and rapaciousness. The apogee of elite criminality and state dysfunctionality occurred in the three years of Viktor Yanukovych’s misrule, 2010-2014.
The Euromaidan Revolution fundamentally upended this status quo. First, by asserting the right of people to choose their leaders, the movement provoked the Kremlin to execute a military land grab in Crimea and the Donbas. Second, the Kremlin’s breach of international law and the subsequent Russo-Ukrainian War compelled the West to stand with Ukraine. Third, the Revolution and War profoundly enhanced Ukrainian national consciousness by forcing Ukrainians, for the first time since 1991, to take sides: with Ukraine or with Russia. The vast majority chose Ukraine.
Ironically, Putin forced Ukraine’s political elites to finally get serious about systemic reform. It is small wonder that Ukraine has changed more in the two years since the Euromaidan Revolution than in the 23 years that preceded it. The political elites have performed well, or well enough, introducing significant economic, political, and cultural changes. They may even have begun to address issues of corruption and rule of law. That most Ukrainians refuse to recognize the reality of these changes—in large part because corrupt elites now removed from power have escaped justice and revenge—does not change the empirical fact of these changes.
Although the Revolution and War have had a positive effect on Ukraine’s trajectory by forcing Ukraine’s elites, finally, to make difficult choices, they have also confronted Ukraine’s elites and civil society with an unprecedented challenge: outright Russian imperialism. Back in the 1990s, the Yeltsin administration was disturbingly worried about the condition of Russians and Russian speakers in the so-called near abroad. Until the Putin regime turned fully fascist by the late 2000s, it generally expressed its distaste of Ukrainian sovereignty by weaponizing its energy resources. The gloves came off and the diplomatic niceties ended with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in late February 2014.
Almost miraculously, Ukraine managed to field a genuine army, generate thousands of volunteers, and stop the Russian assault. The current stalemate in eastern Ukraine—despite costing the lives of innocent Ukrainian soldiers and civilians—is a major victory for Ukraine. It stopped one of the world’s largest armies and most vicious dictators. That is an achievement that most Europeans would be hard-pressed to repeat. And yet, it is a short-term victory.
To be able to deter a Russian attack permanently, Ukraine must grow economically. Ukraine must become an East European tiger with double-digit growth rates. Failing that, Ukraine’s economy will not be able to sustain a long-term security effort to stop Russian imperialism. Economic reform is thus indispensable to political and national survival. And inasmuch as rapid economic growth is impossible if corruption remains unaddressed, the fight against corruption is also indispensable to Ukraine’s survival.
As Ukrainian soldiers die on a daily basis in the occupied Donbas, the questions Ukrainians must address as they embark on their next 25 years are these: Will economic reform and the struggle against corruption be easier with or without the occupied Donbas? Will economic reform and the struggle against corruption be more effective with or without the occupied Donbas? Can economic reform and the struggle against corruption be sustained with or without the occupied Donbas? Will political and national survival be more likely with or without the occupied Donbas? The future of their country depends on the correct answers to these questions.
For the first time since 1991, Ukraine has the opportunity to break out of Russia’s orbit and to transform itself into a genuinely self-reliant, democratic, and prosperous state. It would be a shame, and a tragedy, if Ukrainians sacrificed their statehood, nationhood, and prosperity on the altar of some imagined “sacred” territorial unity and thereby returned into Putin Russia’s imperial fold.